Abstracts - for the 5th September 2012

Retailing and Distribution History - CHORD Conference

Abstracts 16.00-17.00

Lyanne Holcombe, Kingston University, UK, ‘The Resort in the City: Retailing Leisure and Tourism in the Regent Palace Hotel, London’

This paper evaluates the production of goods for touristic purposes in the 1914-1939 period. It identifies how the role of destinations in the form of hotels played a part in the retailing of the city in the urban context. Piccadilly as a location for the Edwardian tourist, shopper and pleasure seeker in the West End of London mapped this area as transient, yet tangible for an urban experience. Advertising for department stores, restaurants and hotels provided representations of the destination as a space of luxury for their guests; as a resort Piccadilly was mapped and promoted by J. Lyons and Co in the heart of London. The Regent Palace Hotel’s lobby inhabited a W.H Smith’s bookshop, chemists, theatre ticket booking office and a cigarette and chocolate kiosk. This threshold, a point in which the outside and inside meet, was at once inviting and enticed the consumer as part of a new modern urban shopping experience.

The intention of this examination of the Regent Palace Hotel is to consider the hotel’s services through its spatial and liminoid aspects, by evaluating the point at which the hotel opens, from street to lobby and how the winter garden was maintained as the public room and resort in the hotel. An emphasis is placed on space, services and goods as representations for assessing the material culture in the hotel. Using a previously unpublished collection of photographs, advertising, management accounts, and memoirs, this investigation will explore how the hotel’s services and goods; including a state of the art modernized telegram system and the production of souvenir postcards by the hotel owners J. Lyons & Co., has presented the opportunity for detailed research on the London hotel. It includes various notions surrounding the city as a metropolitan entity, paternalistic cultures of selling, commodity culture and retailing, the context of space and the notion of leisure located in the public arena.

Dave Kinney, Independent Researcher, UK and Phil Lyon, Umeå University, Sweden, ‘Grocers’ Window Displays: The Eclipse of a Tradition’

Food shops have the perennial problem of informing potential customers about the goods they have available for sale. In some way, visual information about stock has to be projected from within the building to people outside so that they know what is on offer, and at what price. This is especially true for food retailers because some or all of their stock may be perishable. Over the years different solutions emerged. Some, like the display of a recently-killed bull’s head over the butcher’s shop, fruit and vegetables on open stands in front of the greengrocer’s premises or even birds hung over the poulterer’s doorway are now consigned to history in many parts of the UK. Others, like the daily window display, linger on for specialist food shops where trade traditions may have considerable differentiating significance but they are anachronistic for most.

By reference to contemporary retailing narratives, this paper examines the changed significance of shop window displays for British grocers in the transition from counter-based to self-service from the late 1940s to the 1960s. The ‘well-dressed’ window showing the range of goods and price offers becomes an early casualty of changed retail practices. Increased use of the emerging design media for specific offer advertising and the opportunities presented by self-service for in-store promotion proved a decisive challenge to the art of the grocer’s window display. New food packaging required graphics and illustration for faster identification as displays were browsed by the self-service customer. A different style of communication with the customer was necessary now that opportunities for influence and advice at the counter were reduced.

Serena Dyer, University of York, UK, ‘Dressing the Elite: Fashion, Intimacy and Business in Eighteenth-Century London and Yorkshire’

Between 1783 and 1785 Mrs Ann Charlton, a society milliner of Holles Street, London, kept up a regular and detailed correspondence with her client, Lady Sabine Winn of Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. This abundant collection of both written passages and sumptuous fabric and ribbon samples, provides a unique and unprecedented insight into fashion distribution amongst the provincial elite. This correspondence highlights the centrality of sociability and the season to the London fashion trade, the importance of Parisian business links, the complex network between manufacturer, retailer, the post trade and the client, and the relationship between female client and supplier.

The correspondence contains fashion news, pecuniary bargaining, offers of gifts, and discussion of personal health, combining intimate and personal details with the formalities of a professional relationship. These two vocabularies are continually at variance within the text of the letters, and are the consequence of a relationship which both transcends and abides by social boundaries. Neither friend nor servant, this singularly feminine association, maintained beyond Lady Sabine's move north, demonstrates both the mercantile methodology of an eighteenth-century businesswoman and the continued reliance of the provincial elite on London traders. Mrs Charlton's other clients included the infamous Countess of Strathmore, for whom she gave evidence at the trial of her husband. Her statement, which substantiated claims of domestic abuse, both physical and mental, as well as declaring the existence of unpaid bills, again merges the deeply personal with the pragmatism of business.

We can contrast these countrywide networks of fashion distribution with the records of bankrupt dressmakers and milliners based in York who were taken into debtors’ prison. The accounts of these failed local retail businesses demonstrate reliance on London and, in spite of the geographical proximity between retailer and client, a lack of the intimacy seen between Mrs Charlton and her clients. The unrivalled depth of the previously untapped evidence provided by Mrs Charlton and the failed York milliners facilitates a crucial step in developing our understanding of women in business, clothing retail and networks of distribution and consumption amongst the eighteenth-century elite.

Jon Stobart, University of Northampton, UK, ‘Buying Books: Networks, Knowledge and the Georgian Country House’

Luxury is central to the material culture of the country house and to many conceptualisations of the elite. Commentators from Adam Smith to Werner Sombart to Arjun Appadurai have distinguished luxury as a particular form of consumption, drawing a close link between luxury, status and honour. But luxury is a slippery and complex idea: a category that is contingent upon time and space, as well as culture and wealth. It links to public displays of wealth and status – and thus to the idea of positional goods used to distinguish elite groups – and to private pleasures of the mind and body. Books have long occupied a particular place in the pantheon of luxury goods. They fulfilled all of Appadurai’s register of consumption, being costly and often difficult to acquire; commanding semiotic virtuosity and specialised knowledge; and often being closely linked to the personality of the consumer. However, they were far from being straightforward luxuries, not least because different owners conceived and deployed their books in very different ways. For bibliophiles, the collection was all important and books were precious objects. Status came from owning rare volumes or first editions, and pleasure through possession rather than use. For the learned gentleman or antiquarian books were important as tools of learning: they represented the world of enlightenment understanding and were for reading. For others, books were about wealth and status: the library formed a forum for display, with the contents intended for show rather than consumption.

In this paper, I want to explore these different readings of the book as luxury through the libraries and consumption practices of two members of the English provincial elite. Sir Roger Newdigate (1719-1806) had his family seat at Arbury Hall in Warwickshire. A renowned scholar, MP for Middlesex and later Oxford University, Sir Roger spent much of his long life remodelling his home in the gothic style. His near neighbour, Edward, fifth Lord Leigh (1742-86), lived at Stoneleigh Abbey. Also with a reputation as something of an intellect, Edward spent lavishly in a burst of activity following his coming of age in 1763, completing the interiors of the Abbey in a conservative neo-classical style. Both men bought and owned a huge number of books, and their libraries were integral to their identity and status. Here, I draw on household accounts, receipted bills, catalogues and correspondence to reproduce a detailed picture of their different patterns and practices of book buying (including their relationships with booksellers); the number, type, quality and condition of the books purchased, and the ways in which they were stored, displayed and used. I argue that both men straddled the divide between the different types of book owner identified in the literature. Newdigate and Leigh were both men of learning and yet were concerned with the quality and presentation of the books which they bought: content and cover were both important in communicating something of their identity. Both used their libraries to construct and communicate social and educational status, investing in books as cultural and symbolic capital, and drawing on that capital in their dealings with their peers. Moreover, these libraries had a spatial expression within their houses: rooms that were planned and designed as spaces of learning and places to display knowledge, wealth and power. Perhaps most significantly, because their books survived them, they had the power to enhance status post-mortem – in the form of family heritance, important bequests or wider cultures of learning. In sum, I present the book as a multi-faceted and complex luxury, with particular and overlapping significance to the (elite) consumer.


Dr Laura Ugolini

Room MC334

Tel: 01902 321890

Email: L.Ugolini@wlv.ac.uk